Why punctuation matters

With Gael Spivak, President of Editors Canada, on left. Note her t-shirt.

Your audience cares about punctuation, even if they don’t know it.

Imagine you’re driving down a road, trying to get to your destination as quickly as possible. Suddenly there’s a speed bump, followed by some litter in the middle of the street. Then you see a sign that sends you in a completely different direction. Now you’re having to stop and think, instead of just getting to where you want to be.

Punctuation is like that. It smoothes out the ride for your reader, removing the speed bumps and other distractions. When used incorrectly, or not at all, it can give your reader the wrong sign and send them away from your message. That’s a waste of your time and effort, and that’s why punctuation matters.

It’s not because of rules, or “proper English.” Punctuation and good writing serve a purpose — to help you get your message across and communicate the way you want. That can be in website text, a report, a social media post, a sales brochure or the next great Canadian novel. Poor punctuation can be irritating and misleading for your audience.

Take this saying from a t-shirt, for example:

Let’s eat Grandma.
Let’s eat, Grandma.
Punctuation saves lives.

In one, you’re consuming your relative. In the other, you’re sitting down to a meal together for family time. Big difference!

Recently I was copyediting a PowerPoint presentation being developed into a user guide. Someone was trying to indicate which buttons to click in a software program by using single quotation marks around them. But I had to stop and think about why these words were being singled out as different and deserving of the punctuation. Plus in Canada we use double quotation marks — single quotation marks are British. The writer, an IT person, probably didn’t realize this, but it was confusing. We resolved it by making all words that indicated clickable buttons bold, and doing it consistently throughout the text. In this case punctuation wasn’t needed and only cluttered the reading experience.

If you’re investing time and effort in creating something that your audience will read, take a moment to consider the punctuation too. It will make the experience easier for your readers, leaving them with the mental energy to devote to absorbing your message rather than figuring out what you’re trying to say.

Let’s do it for Grandma.

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